A Letter on
the Bolivian Revolution

by S. Ryan
[Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, June 1952]

June 1, 1952
The Secretariat, SWP
Dear Comrades,

This letter is a request for clarification on the program and policy of the POR of Bolivia. The POR has been presented the opportunity of leading a revolution and thereby rendering a great service to our international movement. Our movement, and not least the SWP, has the duty of giving the Bolivian comrades all possible aid, both material and political. It is only natural that we in United States should be extremely anxious that the Bolivian comrades pursue a policy that will bring them success.

The interview with Comrade Guillermo Lora, carried in The Militant of May 12 and May 19, raises some serious questions about the program and policy of the POR which, I believe, should be resolved as soon as possible. The questions raised in the interview, and not satisfactorily answered by Comrade Lora include:

  1. The class character of the government;
  2. The character of the MNR;
  3. Our attitude toward the compromisers;
  4. The revolutionary transitional program for Bolivia.

Let me comment briefly on the manner in which Comrade Lora appears to answer these questions.

1. The Class Character of the Government

I think it is incontestable that the present Bolivian government is a bourgeois government, whose task and aim is to defend by all means available to it the interests of the bourgeoisie and of imperialism. It will, if it can, harness and disarm the working class, smash its revolutionary vanguard, and rebuild the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which has been shaken but not destroyed by the first phase of the revolution. This government is therefore the deadly enemy of the workers and peasants, and especially of the Marxist party.

Comrade Lora does not take up explicitly the question of the class character of the government. The closest he comes is the following:

The Paz Estenssoro government, dominated by its reactionary wing, shows all the characteristic features of ‘Bonapartism,’ operating between the proletariat and imperialism.

Does this imply the bourgeois character of the government? Perhaps. I hope so. But this is question that will have to be answered, and not by implication or inference but directly.

One thing does appear clearly: Comrades Lora does not regard this government as an enemy of the working class and of the POR.

‘One cannot exclude the possibility,’ he says, ‘that the right wing (of the government) faced with the sharpening of the mass struggle against it, will ally itself with imperialism to crush the so-called ‘Communist’ danger.’

This formulation is wrong, very wrong! This is an error which, if it actually represents the position of the POR, can have tragic consequences for the very physical existence of the cadres of the Bolivian Trotskyist party.

This is the warning the leaders of the POR must give the working class and above all its own supporters: We must expect with absolute certainty (not merely “not exclude the “possibility”) that the government (not merely its right wing) will ally itself with imperialism and try to crush the mass movement and first of all its vanguard, the POR which is the real (and not “so-called”) communist danger.

‘It is beyond doubt,’ concludes Comrade Lora, ‘that the new government is now being subjected to enormous pressure by the feudal bourgeoisie (this term is no doubt the result of a faulty translation) and by imperialism to make it capitulate or to destroy it. Under such conditions the POR defends the government with all its strength and by means of mobilization of the masses ... Today, far from succumbing to the hysteria of a struggle against the MNR, whom the pro-imperialists have baptized as ‘fascists,’ we are marching with the masses to make the April 9 movement the prelude to the triumph of the workers’ and peasants’ government.’

Three separate questions seem to be mixed up here:

a. The Marxist political opposition to a bourgeois government; a government which, because of its weakness, is forced to maneuver with the working class and appear to have not yet “capitulated” to the bourgeoisie. Comrade Lora seemingly is taken by the appearance of impartiality.

b. The opposition of the more open pro-imperialists to the government as “fascist.” This opposition aims at strengthening the hand of the government against the working class or at overthrowing the government or both. This opposition has nothing in common with the Marxist opposition from the left; and Comrade Lora is guilty of a serious error in confusing the two when he says that the POR is “far from succumbing to the hysteria of a struggle against the MNR.”

c. The technical and material cooperation and aid which Marxists would give the MNR government against a Kornilov or Franco-type coup. This must be sharply differentiated from political support, which we would never give. We would continue to struggle against the government – with means suited to the situation, naturally – even while striking together with it against a military overthrow.

This confusion by Comrade Lora of two different types of “opposition” and two different types of “support” appears to parallel the potentially disastrous March-April (1917) policy of the Bolsheviks, who in the absence of Lenin declared their support against reaction or counter-revolution.” But it does not appear to parallel the policy of Lenin in the struggle against Kornilov. Lenin wrote:

It would be the profoundest mistake to imagine that the revolutionary proletariat is capable, so to speak, out of ‘vengeance’ upon the SR’s and Mensheviks, of refusing to ‘support’ them against the counter-revolution ... We ought not even now to support the government of Kerensky. That would be unprincipled. You ask: But mustn’t we fight Kornilov? Of course, yes. But that is not the same thing. There is a limit here. Some of the Bolsheviks are crossing it, slipping into compromisism, getting carried by the flood of events.

2. What is the Character of the MNR?

Comrade Lora answers this question as follows: “The MNR is a petty-bourgeois party which bases itself on the organizations of the masses.” I think this is wrong, and is the basis for a conciliationist attitude toward the MNR. The MNR is a bourgeois party, which politically exploits the masses. The majority of its members, as in all mass parties, are no doubt workers and middle-class elements; but that does not determine its class character. It is controlled not by its majority but by its tiny minority, and the absentee controllers, the capitalist class. How else explain the composition of the government which, as Comrade Lora says, “is weighted with the most reactionary elements of the MNR and particularly the Freemasons...the most effective agents of imperialism”?

Is this the type of government the POR meant when it raised the slogan: “The MNR to Power”? The composition of the government is in complete conformity with the character of the MNR. I think it was wrong to raise this slogan. Unless our comrades retrieve their error by reconsidering their characterization of the MNR, they will inevitably suffer along with the MNR when the masses, through their own experience, begin to see the real class character of this bourgeois party.

3. Our Attitude Toward the Compromiser

Toward the labor leaders in the government, Comrade Lora takes an unequivocal attitude; he supports them, and presents no criticism of their role. The textile workers, he recounts, obliged the MNR to accept working-class elements into the cabinet. Did the POR support this demand? The presumption is strong that it did. Comrade Breitman quotes the New Leader as saying that Comrade Lora is Lechin’s Secretary; and Breitman does not contradict this report. If true, would not this place the POR as a subordinate, ex-officio member of the bourgeois coalition government? And if the report is not true, the situation is not decisively different. Suppose the POR had been strong enough to force its way into the cabinet? Suppose, as we all hope and envisage, the POR gains more mass support in the future, will it then enter a bourgeois coalition government? This is the logic of the position outlined by Comrade Lora.

The Marxist attitude has always been and will continue to be one of hostility toward the compromisers; to call on them to break with the bourgeois politicians and form a workers’ and farmers’ government. According to late reports, Lechin is capitulating to the right wing of the government on the question of nationalization of the mines. This should be no surprise to us. It was inevitable. How much would the POR have gained in the confidence of the masses if it had predicted this capitulation? How much has it lost by its support of the compromisers?

Of course the POR would thereby have lost Lechin’s friendship. But Lechin’s is a treacherous, and undependable friendship. Lechin will capitulate again, and again. He will help disarm the workers. He will help smash the POR, no matter how it may try to placate him. And Lechin’s betrayal will be facilitated if the POR continues to support him.

4. The Revolutionary Transitional Program

The independence of the revolutionary party is an absolute law in a revolutionary situation. But this does not fall from the sky. It arises out of the Marxist theory and the program of the party. The central slogans put forward by our party, according to Comrade Lora, were as follows:

1. Restoration of the constitution of the country through the formation of an MNR government which obtained a majority in the 1951 elections.

2. Struggle for the improvement of wages and working conditions.

3. Struggle for democratic rights.

4. Mobilization of the masses against imperialism, for the nationalization of the mines, and for the abrogation of the UN agreement.

Points 2 and 3 are clearly insufficient to differentiate our party from other tendencies in the labor movement. They are too general. The question how we carry on the struggle must be elaborated, and in such a way as to form a part of the revolutionary transitional program.

Is the demand for nationalization sufficient to differentiate the Marxist program from those of all other tendencies? I don’t think so. Both the right and left wings of the MNR are for nationalization. And there is no compelling reason to suppose the MNR cannot accomplish it to one degree or another. Cardenas, Mossadegh, Peron, have carried through nationalizations without thereby giving up an iota of their bourgeois character.

Nationalization does not change the class character of the state. Nationalization itself has a class character, deriving it from the class character of the government that carries it out. Of course, we do not oppose such nationalizations; we defend them against imperialism. But the decisive question remains: Which class has political and military control? Is the state power in the hands of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat? And the bourgeois power can be removed only by proletarian revolution.

Comrade Lora apparently does not draw this sharp line in the class character of the state. By his designation of the present government as “Bonapartist” operating between the proletariat and imperialism, by characterizing the MNR as a petty-bourgeois party, and by his emphasis on nationalization, he seems to regard the present regime as a transitional regime having no fixed class character.

‘It is now necessary,’ says Comrade Lora, ‘to fight for the nationalization of the mines, the key industries, and the land. This struggle will be intimately connected with the development of the mass upsurge, with the involvement of new working-class sectors in the struggle in such a way that it assumes nationwide scope, and finally with the constitution of a workers’ and farmers’ government.’

An elaboration of this statement would of course result in the projection of a transitional program. I hope it will be so elaborated.

But how does this square with the demand for restoration of the bourgeois constitution? I well remember how sharply the French right-wing Trotskyists were castigated (and very correctly) for voting for a bourgeois constitution. They defended themselves by pointing to the fact that the working-class organizations were for it, while the reactionaries were against. Is this the justification of the POR? This would make Marxist policy very simple: Look at what the extreme right is doing and do the opposite.

But the masses were fighting under the slogan of restoration of the constitution? Marxists can participate in the struggles of the masses without their wrong slogans. True, they would then be a minority; but that is the penalty we must pay for pointing out the objective necessities which the masses do not yet completely understand. The Marxists must patiently explain.

Comrade Lora points to the influence which the POR gained in the left wing of the MNR. Worthless influence, it appears to me, if it is achieved by adopting the program of the MNR. A united front with a bourgeois party with the aim of establishing a bourgeois constitution and placing the bourgeois party in power is not a united front but a people’s front.

The united front that the Marxists advocate aims to unite the workers and peasants on a minimum program embodying a stage of the revolutionary transitional program. This united front, in a revolutionary situation, turns into the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. And even in the soviets the struggle goes on. Far from accepting the conciliationist program which may be imposed on the soviets, the Marxists advocate their own program, calling on the soviets to break with the bourgeoisie, their parties and their government, and take the complete power, establishing a workers’ and peasants’ government.

But Comrade Lora does not raise the question of a break with the bourgeois government. The workers’ and peasants’ government he advocates appears as some ultimate conclusion to a gradual reshuffling of the personnel of the bourgeois government, whereby the right wingers will be forced out and the cabinet take on a more and more left tinge.

In a revolutionary situation the slogan of a workers’ and farmers’ government is not an ultimate goal but an immediate demand, inseparable from a break with and overthrow of the bourgeois government. The workers’ and farmers’ government can be realized in actuality only as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This letter, comrades, is based on one interview with one leader of the POR. I realize – rather fervently hope – that I have not a sufficient basis to characterize the policy of the POR. I have therefore restrained the tone of my criticism to the utmost. But there is a danger, or at least the possibility, in the midst of a great struggle, of being carried away by the flood of events. Without dictating to the Bolivian comrades their specific tactics, the leaders of our party must help the POR base its tactics strictly on the revolutionary Marxist program, the only hope of victory.

I hope you will view this letter in the spirit in which it is written: more an inquiry than a criticism.